November 2016

For who can wield like Shakespeare’s skilful hand?

st john’s smith square

Benda Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
Linley Shakespeare Ode

Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Caroline Kennedy soprano
Thomas Herford tenor
Richard Latham baritone
Bampton Classical Players, on period instruments

The complexities of artistic and social ideas that we call the Romantic Movement originated in mid-eighteenth-century England. English artists and poets began to concern themselves with nature in the raw, with exoticism, and with the remote past. Shakespeare’s plays were crucial texts for the early Romantics, with Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream catering for a new interest in the supernatural. Shakespeare’s plays had never entirely dropped out of the theatrical repertory in England, except for the Civil War and Commonwealth period when the theatres were closed. After the Restoration some of them were revived and the texts made to conform to Augustan ideas of order, symmetry and propriety. In the 1740s David Garrick created a new interest in Shakespeare with a revolutionary naturalistic style of acting. He devised and organised a bizarre three-day Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford in 1769, where effusive poetic tributes to Shakespeare were preferred to the Bard’s own words; the proceedings were musical rather than thespian.

Georg Anton Benda (1722 – 1795) was one of the most important members of a dynasty of musicians which has been called ‘the Bach family of Bohemia’.   In 1750 he was appointed Kapellmeister to Duke Frederick III of Saxe-Gotha, and it was in the Thuringian town of Gotha that he was to spend much of his remaining career. Frederick’s death in 1772 led to the abrupt conclusion of Benda’s chapel duties in Gotha, but the arrival of the Swiss impresario Abel Seyler’s eminent theatrical troupe in June 1774 opened up new compositional possibilities.

Benda thus embarked on a brief but remarkable phase of dramatic composition including two innovative melodramas, Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea, which set declaimed text against orchestra and were frequently performed and imitated, including by Mozart.  In 1776 he returned to sung German drama, first with the operetta Walder and then with the three-act ‘ernsthafte Oper’ (‘serious opera’) Romeo und Julie. His librettist was the poet Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter (1746-97), a previous collaborator. They were first performed in the delightful new theatre which the enlightened and culturally ambitious Duke Ernst II had built from 1774 in the Gotha ducal palace, the Schloss Friedenstein. Here a particular interest was to present translations of plays which had enjoyed success in London at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and so Gotha audiences were introduced to recent works by Garrick, Goldsmith and Sheridan. Romeo und Julie fitted well into this Anglophile dramatic context. Gotter himself was eventually to adapt The Tempest, as Die Geisterinsel, in 1790, a libretto intended for Mozart but ultimately, after Mozart’s death, set by three different composers.

Gotter’s prose version is much influenced by the 1767 tragedy Romeo und Julie by Christian Felix Weisse. The reduction of the populous Shakespearian cast to four main singers was calculated so that it lay within the resources of the somewhat modest company at Gotha. Gotter followed Weisse in wishing to conform to the classical unities and avoiding the ‘many trivial, superfluous things not necessary to the plot’ in Shakespeare. This necessitated a drastic compression of the story, with the elimination of crowd and comic scenes. The dynastic feud retreats into the background, and Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt and Lady Capulet are all axed. The five days of action implied by Shakespeare were condensed into one, creating some puzzling dramaturgical problems.

Designed for Benda’s 17-year-old pupil, Sophia Preysing, the role of Juliet is central, and she is present on stage throughout. As the brief story unfolds we witness three consecutive scenes exploring her stormy relationships with her friend Laura, her husband Romeo (their secret marriage by Friar Lorenzo has already taken place) and with her father Capulet. Hers is the most deeply-felt music, and her opening monologue shows the lessons Benda had learned through his melodramas of highlighting text by modulations of colour, tonality and rhythm. The opening scena allows accompanied recitative to grow out of the Sturm und Drang overture, alternating music of delicate fragility with robust and violent outbursts, portraying her volatile and intensely emotional character.

The robustly earthy humour of Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare offended the German translators. In the opera, she is named as Laura and becomes Juliet’s confidante: patient when Juliet is impetuous, generously loving even when insulted, she provokes and questions, counsels and informs. Benda wrote the role for his 19-year old daughter, Justel, who clearly had an agile coloratura, and her virtuosic and youthful music creates an appealing foil for the more lyrical and serious Juliet.

Since the Gotha company no longer maintained outstanding men performers, the male roles are less demanding. Romeo was sung by the tenor Johan Ernst Dauer, who was later to create Pedrillo for Mozart’s Die Entführung, but who was criticised as an uninspired and wooden performer. Gotter’s script does not allow him much depth; his duets with Juliet are attractive and indicate an ardent passion but are a little formulaic, and his tomb-scene farewell is pretty rather than profound.

The funereal opening of Act 3 is considered to be the most impressive music. Here Benda may have been influenced through the interest of the Gotha cultural establishment in the theatrical life of London. In September 1750 there had occurred the renowned ‘battle of the Romeos’ when David Garrick at Drury Lane and John Rich at Covent Garden simultaneously mounted productions of Shakespeare’s play. Rich cannily milked the sentiment of the funeral scene by introducing the novelty of a ‘Solemn Dirge’ by Thomas Arne, to which Garrick responded a mere two days later with a hastily composed equivalent by William Boyce. Thereafter such melancholic dirges became de rigueur, and Benda must have been aware of such expectations when he included a sublime C minor choral quartet at the opening of his third act, as Juliet’s body is carried into the tomb. Followed immediately by two duets in which choral mourners partner Capulet and then Laura, and with a reprise of the quartet, the whole scene made a powerful and frequently remarked-upon impression – Johann Friedrich Reichardt, influential critic and poet, declared that Benda ‘harvested the highest praise: tears from an overflowing fullness of heart’.

Nevertheless too many tears created discomfort for enlightenment audiences – recall the happy ending Calzabigi provided for Orpheus and Euridice in Gluck’s opera. Gotter felt that convincing tragedy was beyond the skills of the Gotha performers: ‘Partly the musical economy seemed to me not to allow the retention of the all-too-tragic catastrophe, partly the consideration of the capabilities of the singers impelled me to this’. And so, as Romeo comes to the end of his intended Liebestod, Juliet awakes – just in time to distract him from consuming his vial of poison. An ecstatic duet follows – ‘rapturous terror, sweet hesitation’: all works out as Lorenzo had planned, and he is able to extract repentance from Capulet and the promise of reconciliation with his enemy Montague, before the happy couple emerge from the tomb and darkness is dispelled by light.

Whether Benda’s opera of 1776 was definitely the first operatic setting of this play is not entirely conclusive, since Johann Gottfried Schwanenberger also wrote one apparently in the same year, to an Italian libretto. But the success and fame of the Gotter-Benda Singspiel was seminal in creating a Shakespeare revival in late eighteenth-century Germany: it was taken up by nearly all the major German companies, and was performed until well into the nineteenth century, a rare triumph in an age devoted to musical novelty.  The UK première of Romeo und Julie was staged by Bampton Classical Opera at the Buxton Festival in 2009, and subsequently at St John’s Smith Square.

Thomas Linley (1756-1778) was the second child and eldest son of Thomas senior, a singing teacher, concert organiser and composer resident in Bath. Thomas Snr’s prodigiously talented children were soon playing a prominent role in city life in the 1740s and young Tom was playing violin concertos at the age of seven and was an accomplished young composer in his early teens; he studied with Boyce and then in Florence, where he met Mozart. On his return, he rapidly became a leading figure in London’s musical life before his death, aged 22, in a boating accident.

The text for Linley’s Shakespeare Ode came from a youthful essay by French Lawrence (1757-1809), first written at Winchester as a school exercise and set by Linley in a revised and extended form. It is an evocation of the supernatural element in Shakespeare’s plays, more concerned with the creation of wild, pre-Romantic atmospheres than with precise meaning. Nevertheless, a plot of sorts can be discerned. The chorus begins by addressing the ‘guardian of that sacred land/where Avon’s wood-crown’d waters stray’. In turn, the Spirit of Avon summons Fancy, who describes how Jove entrusted the infant Shakespeare to her care. Shakespeare’s youth ‘in old Arden’s inmost shade’ is described, and then the poet embarks on an evocation of the fairy atmosphere in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conducted with phraseology derived more from Milton than from Shakespeare.

In part 2 the skies suddenly darken, and attention shifts to the gothic horror of Macbeth; the bass acts as a fearful but questioning observer to the ‘deeds without a name’ of the witches. The day dawns, and rationalism dawns with it; in the clear light of the eighteenth century, the poet seems to say, elves have ceased to chase ‘with printless pace’, and Ariel no longer sails ‘along the sky’ (his flight memorably portrayed in the aria with oboe obbligato). The problem, the sopranos sing in their duet, is that no-one can ‘wield like Shakespeare’s skilful hand/That magic wand, whose potent sway/The elves of earth, of sea, and air obey’. The chorus ends the work by calling on Fancy to ‘give another Shakespeare to our isle’.

Like much English music of the period, the Shakespeare Ode is eclectic in style. The first two movements of the Overture are in the archaic French Baroque pattern, a dotted introduction followed by a fine extended fugue (reviewed at the time as ‘masterly’); then comes a minuet with prominent writing for oboes and horns in the modern German symphonic styles. In the succeeding airs and choruses Linley’s music has echoes of Purcell (in the first and last choruses), Handel (in a number of the arias), Thomas Arne (notable in the duet ‘For who can yield’) and J.C. Bach (the exquisite arias ‘There in old Arden’s inmost shade’ and ‘Ariel, who sees thee now’). Yet Linley’s own compositional voice is never swamped by his musical heritage, and in the chorus ‘What howling whirlwinds’ he produced an astonishing evocation of early Romanticism that looks forward to Weber, Mendelssohn and even Berlioz.

The last word can be left to a writer in A Dictionary of Musicians (1824): ‘Neither Purcell not Mozart ever gave stronger proofs of original genius than could be traced in this charming ode. The rich variety of contrast in the witch and fairy music, the wild solemnity of the one, and the sportive exuberance of the other, keep the attention alive from the first bar of the overture to the close of the ode’.

Adapted from essays by Jeremy Gray and Peter Holman